SOURCE: Newsweek (8-23-08)
... [H]ow has the presumptive Democratic nominee, Barack Obama, proposed to revivify Democratic liberalism? There is a quotation that ought to give Democrats, and not just Democrats, pause:"This year will not be a year of politics as usual. It can be a year of inspiration and hope, and it will be a year of concern, of quiet and sober reassessment of our nation's character and purpose. It has already been a year when voters have confounded the experts. And I guarantee you that it will be the year when we give the government of this country back to the people of this country. There is a new mood in America. We have been shaken by a tragic war abroad and by scandals and broken promises at home. Our people are searching for new voices and new ideas and new leaders."
Delivered in Obama's exhortatory cadences, the words are uplifting. The trouble is, though they seem to fit, the passage is from Carter's acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in 1976.
The convergence is revealing. As Republican strategists have begun to notice with delight, Obama's liberal alternative to the post-Bush GOP to date has much in common with Carter's post-Watergate liberalism. Rejecting"politics as usual," attacking"Washington" as the problem, promising to heal the breaches and hurts caused by partisan political polarization, pledging to break the grip that lobbyists and special interests hold over the national government, wearing his Christian faith on his sleeve as a key to his mind, heart and soul—in all of these ways, Obama resembles Jimmy Carter more than he does any other Democratic president in living memory.
In other ways, Obama's liberal vision appears clouded, uncertain and even contradictory. During his four years in Washington, he has compiled one of the most predictably liberal voting records in the Senate—yet he presents himself as an advocate of bipartisanship and ideological flexibility. He has offered himself as the tribune of sweeping change—yet he also proclaims national unity, as if transformation can come without struggle. He has emerged as the champion of a new, post-racial politics, even though he has only grudgingly separated himself from his pastor of 20 years, who every week preached a gospel of"black liberation theology" that has everything to do with racial politics.
The most obvious change to liberal politics Obama has to offer is the color of his skin. Some of his supporters have, whether wittingly or not, been candid enough to say, as Sen. John Kerry did last March, that Obama's blackness is the rationale for making him president. But it is difficult to square such claims with Obama's appeal to a liberalism that transcends race. And when Obama himself subtly and not so subtly draws attention to his color, and charges that the John McCain Republicans will try to scare voters by saying he"doesn't look like all those presidents on the dollar bills," he turns voting for him into an intrinsically virtuous act, proof that one has resisted base appeals to racism (which, in fact, the McCain campaign has not made).
Much of Obama's appeal to the left stems from what might be called the romance of the community organizer. Although his organizing career on Chicago's South Side was brief and, by his own admission, unremarkable, it distinguishes him as another first of his kind in presidential politics, a candidate who looks at politics from the bottom up. For the left, community organizing trumps party politics and experience in government. Some even imagine that Obama is a secret radical, and they see his emergence as an unparalleled opportunity for advancing their frustrated agendas about issues ranging from the redistribution of wealth to curtailing U.S. power abroad.
Obama still has a long way to go to describe the kind of liberalism he stands for, how it meets the enormous challenges of the present—and how it will meet as-yet-unanticipated challenges after the election. Nowhere is this more crucial than in the harsh and volatile realm of foreign policy. Last winter, when his candidacy gained traction, Obama's foreign-policy credentials consisted almost entirely of a speech he gave before a left-wing rally in Chicago in 2002, denouncing the impending invasion of Iraq as"a dumb war." That speech, made by a state senator representing a liberal district that included the University of Chicago, and that went unreported in the Chicago Tribune's lengthy article on the rally, was enough to convince many of his supporters that he is blessed with superior acumen and good instincts about foreign affairs. Later comments, such as his promise, later softened, to meet directly and"without preconditions" with the leaders of Iran and other supporters of terrorism, pleased left-wing Democrats and young antiwar voters as a sign of boldness—even as they left experienced diplomats in wonder at such half-baked formulations.
Then, suddenly this summer, Russia attacked Georgia—and Obama's immediate reaction was to call for reasonableness and good intentions and urge both sides to show restraint and enter into direct talks. Unfortunately his appeal sounded almost like a caricature of liberal wishful thinking. It was left to his opponent, John McCain—whose own past judgments on foreign policy demand scrutiny—to declare right away the sort of thing that might have come naturally to previous generations of liberal Democrats (let alone to a conservative Republican): that"Russia should immediately and unconditionally cease its military operations and withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory." Beyond the matter of experience, beyond how thoroughly the two candidates had thought through the situation, the difference highlighted how Obama still lacks a comprehensive vision of international politics....